Get Off The Road

Many reliable mathematical models of the environment say we are destroying this planet with $CO_2$ (carbon dioxide) or at least making it uninhabitable for human culture as we know it within a couple of generations. What responsibility do we, as mathematicians and people, have to act in response to these models? Wealthier people and cultures are contributing more to this problem than poorer people and cultures, but these poorer people are feeling the consequences more quickly and more severely than their wealthier counterparts. This must stop. As a field, we should make a significant shift in focus toward modeling the environment and teaching citizens to reason with models more carefully. As people, raising livestock for food contributes tremendously to the greenhouse gas problem, so it’s time to become vegan, but that’s simply not enough. We have to stop burning fossil fuels, so I’m asking you to give up your car. I know this sounds painful, but it’s nothing compared to the really radical ideas: have fewer children or simply breathe less to reduce your output of $CO_2$! Perhaps humanity should step aside, letting giant insects and the toxic forest take over, cleaning up our mess for a few thousand years.

I suspect you’ve realized that I’m not going to write an apocalyptic post about global warming or a synopsis of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Instead, I’m writing a post about how difficult it is to hear this kind of critique of the way we live our lives from activists of various feathers.

For the purpose of this post, I’m going to compare and contrast calls from activists in two different domains: the radical “environmentalist” in my cold open and an “anti-racist” who is critiquing the persistent under-representation and marginalization of groups of people in mathematics and the academy in general. I think the anti-racist’s ideas hit closer to home and therefore are a lot harder to hear, so this post uses the comparison to process the difficulty in a less threatening context. Explaining a joke can ruin the humor, but I’m an academic, so please forgive this exegesis! The second half of this post contains 5 take-away strategies for allies who want to try to do better.

First, a little more about this second activist. The anti-racist teaches us that under-representation is a structural problem and that hiring committees that wish to diversify the professoriate will often fail because our institutions are simply full already. They suggest that one way we might make some space is for us to stop hiring white men and for a bunch of people to quit their jobs. The environmentalist teaches us that there are structures, rooted deeply in our culture, that generate an unwanted, toxic byproduct. Small changes like recycling certainly help, but we will not solve this problem without fundamental changes to our institutions. They suggest that one way we might make some headway on this problem is to stop using cars.

Both of these “solutions” are extreme thought experiments that will never happen and could never happen. Even if these thinkers convinced individuals to try these options, they would fail. The question would be more complicated for me if I were sure that I could resign my job and be guaranteed that I’d be replaced by a woman of color, but that’s simply not possible at this time. Similarly, deciding to remove my carbon footprint is nearly impossible in practice, and even if I did it myself, the change would be so tiny compared to our collective footprint that the problem would hardly be solved. Moreover, trying to take either of these options would likely require extreme privilege. Quitting my job without another plan would be a silly gamble unless I were already wealthy enough to live without an income, and choosing to go without transportation and with a selective diet might have called to mind the image of a child of wealth. Of course, some people manage these acts with or without choice, but taking them up to scale would require infrastructure we do not currently have. Both “solutions” amount to asking the reader to consider dismantling a system by refusing to participate in it as they do currently; of course, it would be much more radical to consider no longer existing — a literal or metaphorical death. I’ve written my environmentalist as unaware that the viability of their perspective might rest on an assumption that others share their privilege, but the environmentalist and the anti-racist can certainly be aware of these issues.

But neither of these thinkers is trying to propose a particular solution; they are trying to teach us about the scope of the problem. I think sometimes we don’t like environmentalists because talking to them makes us uncomfortable. This is exactly the point; they are trying to teach us something, and learning/growing/changing is fundamentally uncomfortable. The goal is not to convince us to make small (or enormous) changes to our daily lives; it is to make us aware that going about our daily lives impacts the environment. They are trying to make us uncomfortable all the time, in much the same way that we’ve all given up the simple surety that we had as small children that adults have everything under control. Similarly, the anti-racist is trying to help us see that simply existing in the academy means that we are taking up space that others can therefore not access, and this has profound implications. In both cases, they are teaching us that no act is neutral because those acts involve participating in systems that have built-in structural problems.

Part of the challenge is that these structural problems are hard to see from inside of the systems. Let’s try to make this systemic invisibility visible by considering the combustion engine for a moment. In general, these machines combine fuel and oxidizers to produce heat that is then converted into work. More specifically, a theoretically perfect engine using ideal/complete/good combustion combines hydrocarbons and oxygen to produce water, heat, and carbon dioxide. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CombustionI’m saying that even in the theory of the best-case scenarios for these basic engines, humans made the choice to view $CO_2$ as an ideal byproduct. Carbon dioxide is not an unwanted impurity that sneaks in when we go from the theoretical to the physical world; it is a defining part of the process, and we’ve called this the ideal. With this choice, we have made this byproduct invisible and nearly uncontrollable, as it was for many years. It wasn’t a pollutant; it was evidence that the system was working as expected, and its invisibility and normality fight against our efforts to control it to this day it because this is how the system works and was built. Analogously, the anti-racist teaches us that hiring practices based on “merit” or “fit,” ideas that seem “colorblind” or neutral, might produce bias and under-representation as byproducts and encourages us to take a more holistic view of the needs of our programs, institutions, and students. In both cases, a first step is for me to become much more self-conscious about driving a car or hiring a new colleague.

If you accept my framing that the environmentalist and anti-racist are teachers, we should of course consider their students. The environmentalist has a bad reputation because, stereotypically, they aim for too much discomfort without the support to process and incorporate it. People who feel this uncomfortable sometimes get defensive: “As a vegan who recycles, I already do so much for the environment; I don’t have a polluting bone in my body!”. It is hard to hear from the anti-racist that, no matter what efforts you undertake as an ally, you are contributing to the problem. It is unpleasant to think that a system that got you where you are hurts others. It can feel like this means that none of your work is positive or appreciated and that somehow you are being judged based on your race or gender, precisely the kind of judgment the anti-racist would rail against.

Here’s how I reconcile these ideas for myself. The anti-racist mathematician and scholars like them from other fields are pointing out that we are participating in a system, that these problems are structural. Of course, there are overtly bigoted individual actions, but even people who never make such actions are participating in a system in which these preferred actions are not neutral. This doesn’t mean that my efforts to support justice and

These carriages from the Harry Potter universe are pulled by “thestrals”, which can only be seen by people who have suffered a loss. Others simply think/feel the carriages move on their own.

equity are meaningless, nor does it mean that I am a bad person. The criticism is of the system, not of me. However, as an individual, I do have a responsibility to fight systems in which good intentions still contribute to oppression, and I have a responsibility to make myself ever more conscious of the impacts of the systems in which I operate. One of the most insidious properties of a system of privilege is that it makes itself invisible to the privileged participants; this invisibility is not a luxury offered to all. It can feel like I made it here on my own and others should be able to succeed if they just worked hard too. I must make sure that I don’t attribute all of my successes to qualities of me or factors within my control while attributing other’s successes to the external world; I must make sure that I don’t attribute all of my struggles to the uncontrollable world while also attributing others’ struggles to qualities of them and factors within their control. I have benefited tremendously from white and male privileges in many situations, and I SHOULD be suspicious of and uncomfortable with my position.

This discomfiture also means that I feel a responsibility to use my position to fight the system. I feel compelled to go through my spaces asking how they are implicitly and structurally difficult for others and using my power to mitigate these factors. As a white, male faculty member, I have a tremendous responsibility to speak up to address inequity. I’ve always been outspoken, but I think I’ve become more of a firebrand with tenure. For example, students’ end-of-term course feedback forms clearly allow for implicit bias to bleed into the evaluation of faculty in ways that disproportionately impact women and people of color. When the faculty at my institution discussed a change in the requirement for who administers these forms, I made a public comment asking about how we respond to this bias structurally. This act cost me very little, but it meant that someone more vulnerable didn’t have to be the one to broach the subject. The issue is ongoing, and I’m not sure I’ve made much of a difference in practice yet. However, before that faculty meeting was over, I had several e-mail messages thanking me for saying what many other people were thinking but didn’t feel safe saying. Of course, the anti-racist would also point out that patting myself on the back for this gesture and thereby letting myself “off the hook” for making actual changes to the system (or myself) is barely better than passively participating in that system, so I should also be uncomfortable with the satisfaction I take from this kind of act.

It can also be hard to be classified as privileged when you feel marginalized at times, and not all marginalization comes from under-representation. Yes, I’m white and male, but I’m also gay and non-Christian at a Lutheran school. Even male privilege is complicated because (mostly as a queer person) it sometimes feels like a searing-hot set of armor that I can either drop or let burn me while I wear it as protection. Again, I reconcile this experience with the anti-racist’s ideas by noting that they are focused on structural problems. As I operate in these systems, I receive some privileges and not others; I am complicit in some inequities and less so in others. These identities are not a final judgment of me as good or bad; instead, I should be judged based on whether I fight the systems or contribute to the inertia that makes them hard to change. Frankly, I think that having dimensions of my identity that are marginalized has helped me develop some degree of empathy for the experiences of other people who are marginalized where I am not, and I feel a responsibility to leverage and grow that empathy. My personal assessment is that most people have at least some dimension of identity that can serve as an opening for this growth.

Most of the comments above are focused on allies, but the readership of this blog is not and should not be only people who think of themselves as allies (or, better yet, accomplices) on issues of justice for under-represented groups in the academy. This blog should also speak both to faculty from under-represented and marginalized groups and to the broader mathematical community, including people who are currently less involved in equity work. Part of the goal of this blog is to support learning about these issues within and across groups. I’ve argued above that this learning can be undermined when people retreat from discomfort, but this is not the only challenge of this learning. In short, fellow white and/or male allies, we need to remember that even our efforts to learn can be a burden on our colleagues from under-represented groups.

I cannot undo the negative impact of this burden, but I can suggest a better action for us in the future. We need to see educating ourselves as a personal responsibility and to seek to

Hiccup (a Viking) learns that his people have hurt dragons by misunderstanding their world though a connection with Toothless (a Dragon). Eventually Toothless becomes the alpha dragon, a leader who can change the system that oppresses them all.

minimize the burden it places on marginalized colleagues. Here are two concrete actions you can take to reduce this burden.

  1. Read the writings that already exist, publicly and freely available, written by multiple different people from under-represented and marginalized groups before asking your colleagues to teach you individually. These writings do not incur a new burden because they have already been constructed, and reading multiple sources helps you move away from thinking that any one person speaks for a whole group. I’m not going to link any of these here publicly because I’ve learned that doing so has some chance of causing these scholars to get caught in the backlash, but I am happy to look for and share examples in more direct messaging.
  2. When you are ready for conversation, start by talking with folks from majority groups and/or places of particular forms of social privilege so that you can benefit from the learning they have already done. This strategy helps maximize the spread of ideas that have been created and shared. If you are struggling with step 1, it might make sense to start here instead, but be careful not to assume you’ve learned the whole story.

We have work to do and resources to start doing that work. I think of it like we are students holding a study group before asking our professor to schedule an extra review session on a weekend. I don’t want to suggest that all learning about justice involves minority groups teaching majority groups, and I certainly don’t want to suggest that people of color exist simply to teach white allies. But it is important to listen to others’ experiences and these strategies can minimize the burden that listening creates. I tried to offer to help with this kind of learning in my social media spaces; my effort was lauded and other people shared ideas, but I suspect I was mostly pushing at an open door. These social media posts did  generate a connection in which a mathematician tried to learn with me rather than impose on a colleague. I hope this post will generate many further connections.

One final criticism laid against the critiques of my environmentalist and anti-racist is that they do not always offer realistic solutions or clear next steps. While I support a person’s right to offer critiques without having to solve the problems they define, this blog, hosted by the AMS, is a good place to discuss actions and solutions. My post is already much too long to include a comprehensive survey of solutions, but I will leave you with three ideas (primarily for white and/or male allies). I am also working on a future post that profiles institutions that have been successful in hiring a diverse faculty and supporting a diverse student body, and I especially welcome comments below that can direct readers to these success stories.

  • Action: Amplify the voices of people from underrepresented groups at your institution. When you hear an idea offered or question asked by a marginalized person, revoice it; use their name and make sure they get credit. “Let’s return to our discussion of Kaiema’s question.” “It sounds like you are agreeing with Kaiema.” “I think Kaiema’s solution is very promising; I’m ready to vote for it.” This strategy got some recent notoriety because it was used by female staffers in the Obama administration, but this strategy can also be employed by people who are not marginalized in these contexts. Similarly, I have already suggested above that injecting critical ideas into the conversation keeps marginalized people from having to do that all the time; as a culture, we sometimes write off marginalized people as being radical if they are the first or only ones talking about an issue. Initiating topics or floating your more radical ideas can protect others from this mechanism, though taking this strategy too far can amount to overwriting the marginalized person’s voice with your own.
  • Habit: Get in the habit of asking yourself how privilege and bias might be at work in your discussions and decisions. Stop and articulate the assumptions being used to make conclusions explicitly. Imagine your current situation from the perspective of another, especially from a minoritized or marginalized perspective (though be careful that you don’t forget that this imagination may not be their truth). I was a participant in an excellent workshop for faculty involved in hiring committees a few years ago, and the facilitators suggested that simply considering what concerns a new faculty member might have about moving to your location and then putting a few possible resources about responses to those concerns on your human resources or hiring pages can help diversify your applicant pool. Yes, mentioning international grocery stores and hair salons that serve non-white clients are pretty shallow and stereotypical items, but their presence indicates that you have tried to consider non-majority perspectives. It’s also nice that applicants can choose to browse these resources on a website rather then having to ask on an interview or endure an in-person microaggression. I’m sure this idea could be executed poorly, but I think it’s a nice place to start.
  • System: A recent article about Harvey Mudd President Maria Klawe’s approach to addressing the under-representation of women in STEM impressed me because it included specific hypotheses about structural issues that sustained this inequity. Of course, Mudd has also been in the news because of struggles with race and workload, but this article also convinces me that Klawe considers the kind of bold actions that have a chance of getting at structural solutions rather than simply mollifying the symptoms when they flare up. Read these short articles, think about what they might look like on your campus, and then take initiative to talk to the right people in your institution/program and get these discussions going in advance of particular incidents of bias or hatred.

Race and gender are such touchy topics in our culture. Perhaps you think this post is better than Piper’s provocative piece from a few weeks ago. Perhaps my environmentalism framing is less threatening, in which case you might also like this piece about a cyclist sharing roads with cars as a metaphor for privilege. Perhaps you are thinking that my tone seems like it might be universally more palatable (though I can imagine a few kinds of readers who got irritated enough with me to stop reading before now). But I had the idea to highlight the goal of this learning as sustained discomfort because of the reflection I did on Piper’s piece. This post could not have replaced her post because it owes too much to it.

This entry was posted in cultural pressure in academia, implicit bias, intersectionality, social justice. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Get Off The Road

  1. Robin Wilson says:

    Thanks for sharing this thoughtful reflection on Piper’s piece. I feel strongly that the positive outcomes that will come from the difficult conversations that have arisen around her courageous blog post will in the long run outweigh the initial shortsighted and hotheaded negative backlash. Her efforts are also a good reminder about the power of one voice.

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